March 30, 2023
Like two bored cavemen, we poked at the dying embers of our fire, belching, scratching and wondering why that helicopter kept flying up and down the canyon. A confused-looking guy with a gigantic paper map exited the whirlybird, a puzzled look on his face.
"Can you tell us where we are?" he asked sheepishly. We spread the map on the dusty ground and showed him.
He thanked us, folded the map and trotted toward the chopper.
"By the way, what are you doing?" I asked.
"We’re from the U.S. Geological Survey and we’re mapping gold mines in the area," he said over his shoulder. Yeah, the guys who made the map were lost.
That time it was "operator error," but that map also had at least two inaccurate place names. News flash: most mobile apps are based on the same data. If you can’t count on the map guys, you must be able to count on yourself. Here’s how.
"Ground truthing" is a start. Call everyone who might have knowledge of the route, your destination and local conditions. Mark your destination on your mobile app, handheld GPS and paper map. Share everything with a responsible party who cares enough about you to notify authorities. Learn basic map and compass skills, at least how to use a catchline. I once tossed a compass into a seminar audience filled with beard-and-flannel types, asking them to show me south. Half showed me north. I hope they got home OK.
WHAT TO PACK
If you can’t see your truck from where you’re hunting, take these 10 essentials and you’ll be able to spend a night in the deep, dark, scary woods without worrying about making it out alive: duct tape; map and compass (and the skills to use them); waterproof matches and fire starter; space blanket; multi-tool; water purification (tabs or filter); water container (or bottled water if there’s little chance you’ll find water in the field); whistle; protein bars; and a small flashlight. Add spare batteries or a power bank and you’re a tish over the arbitrary 10, but who’s quibbling when it comes to getting home in one piece? Take your phone, too, of course, but don’t count on it to get you out of a jam. It wouldn’t hurt to buy and subscribe to SPOT or Garmin’s InReach, either.
WATCH THE WEATHER
Research search-and-rescue callouts and you’ll find that you’re likely to stay alive if you: tell someone where you’re headed and when you’ll return; know where the nearest highway or town is; pack your 10 essentials; don’t buck snowdrifts going uphill—there will be more; and stay with your vehicle. When I go out for dinner and leave the pets in the house, I tell my wirehair, "Don’t do anything stupid." It’s good advice for outdoorsmen, too. I kiboshed a hunting trip last season because the weather forecast was iffy for the tail end of a deep foray into the darkest corner of the lower 48 states. Slick, muddy roads, arctic cold, no cell signal and no roadside assistance were just a few of the deterrents, not to mention mountain lions. Anglers should always look at upstream weather with an eye on the potential for flooding. The point is, get out or cancel before things get dicey.
In the event you become lost, hunker down, start a fire, build a shelter, signal searchers and stay put. Try your phone; texts often get through when calls won’t. You might be stressed when rescuers find you, but you’ll be wrapped in a space blanket as helpful volunteers tend to your needs. If you must leave your rig, post a note in it with your departure time/day and where you’re headed. Usually, the best plan is to walk downhill, re-tracing your original route. Or head downstream, and when two streams meet, follow the "arrow" created by their juncture. Knowing how to find the North Star might help if you are familiar with the country or have your map. And mark your truck and camp as waypoints on a GPS for a compass bearing and maybe directions to a known location.
Need more motivation? I was following my bird dogs off-trail behind my house (OK, it was 3 miles behind my house) when pea-soup fog rolled in as the sun sank below the horizon. I could see the newspaper headline: "So-Called ‘Outdoor Expert’ Rescued in Own Backyard." My go-to catchline is the forest service road to the west, and I had a compass on my phone. After a little brush-busting, we eventually caught the rutted gravel. I was striding into the yard as my wife poked her head out the door, a worried look on her lovely face. "When’s dinner?" I asked nonchalantly. She shook her head, but at least she didn’t have to call the newspaper.
Catchline: Find Your Way Back to Camp
Before you make a move in strange country, grab a map and identify a stream, road, ridgeline or other long, relatively straight feature in relation to where you start. That’s your catchline. As long as you know what direction you’ve gone in relation to the catchline, you’re home free.
Example: I’m camped along a river that runs north-south. I hunt away from camp to the east. When I want to head back, I simply walk west until I reach the river. Camp is either left or right along my catchline. Be the cool uncle by overshooting camp on purpose (say, to the north) so you know to walk south when you hit the stream.